How Prescription Painkiller Addiction Affects Pregnancy

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Over the past 15 years, the United States has seen an increase in pregnant women addicted to painkillers. A recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the first of its kind, revealed the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic on families across the U.S., including on the very youngest and most vulnerable. Another point that was mentioned in the study is that untreated opioid use disorder during pregnancy can lead to heartbreaking results.

Opioid use among pregnant women represents a significant public health concern due to the overwhelming negative consequences that can occur. In 1999, the rate of women arriving at hospitals to deliver babies with an opioid disorder was 1.5 per 1,000 per deliveries, and that number rose sharply to 6.5 in 2014.

This largely is in part due to the overprescribing of opioids over the past several years. In an effort to curb this very serious epidemic, doctors have been prescribing fewer painkillers with the hopes of slowing this problem down. As of today, however, more than 115 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose every single day.

One of the issues is that even with the reduction in prescriptions, those already addicted are passing this on to their newborn children. When children are born to addicted mothers, not only do they have to fight a battle of withdrawal as infants but they risk medical problems for the rest of their lives as well as a potential drug problem of their own later on in life.

What are Prescription Opioids?

There are a variety of prescription opioid painkillers ranging from codeine to morphine. Each serves the primary purpose of controlling pain. These could be prescribed by your health care provider after you’ve suffered an injury, after a surgery, or if you’ve had dental work done. There are several types of prescription opioids including:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Meperidine
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Tramadol

The specific type prescribed is decided by the type of injury or the severity of the surgery. This is left at the doctor’s discretion in order to help alleviate the pain and symptoms. The problem though is that even after injury, individuals will exaggerate the symptoms in order to be prescribed these medications. There have also been reports that some doctors who accept perks from companies that make opioids are more likely to prescribe them. This will only continue to exacerbate an already lethal problem.

What Makes Opioids Dangerous during Pregnancy

According to the Mayo Clinic, opioids used during pregnancy might cross the placenta and enter the baby’s central nervous system. With that said, while occasional use isn’t linked to major concerns, it is still something that could affect the child. With more extensive use, the pregnant woman faces passing on what is called a Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which is a group of conditions caused when a baby goes through withdrawal from drugs they are exposed to in the womb before birth. This is commonly caused during pregnancy and addiction to painkillers. There are many complications that can be attributed to prolonged opioid use in conjunction with pregnancy such as:

  • Placental problems, including placental abruption and placental insufficiency
  • Premature rupture of membranes
  • Preterm labor and premature birth
  • Fetal growth restriction
  • Preeclampsia
  • Miscarriage or fetal death
  • Postpartum heavy bleeding
  • Inflammation of the fetal membranes

Because of these risk factors, adverse and uncomfortable symptoms can be passed onto the baby after birth. The use of prescription painkillers can cause the same effects on the baby that the mother experiences. With extended use, the baby, like the mother, will develop a tolerance to the drugs. Once the baby is delivered, they will immediately go through painful withdrawal symptoms that can range from:

  • Tremors
  • Jitteriness
  • Diarrhea
  • Uncoordinated sucking reflexes leading to poor feeding
  • Irritability
  • High-pitched cry
  • Poor sleep
  • Seizures

Withdrawal in babies can last an entire month before symptoms start to subside. This can result in a lengthy hospital stay for the baby. Babies that experience NAS will also exhibit symptoms such as low birth weights and respiratory problems.

Infants born with NAS typically need treatment with anticonvulsants such as phenobarbital, or opioids like morphine to reduce the probability of seizures and ease withdrawal symptoms. In more extreme cases, birth defects of the heart, brain, and/or spine have been reported. There are also reports of problems in utero that don’t allow a baby to ever grow to its intended size.

With all of the symptoms mentioned, the National Institute on Drug Abuse points out that these cases are more prominent in lower-income communities.

Suddenly Quitting Prescription Painkillers While Pregnant

Expectant mothers don’t always intend to get pregnant—some want to take the proper steps to quit and ensure the safety of their baby. So the question is: it safe to suddenly quit prescription painkillers during pregnancy? The answer is no. While the intentions are for the baby are good, there are recommended procedures set in place to aid in the detox process. Quitting cold turkey could have catastrophic consequences for the baby including:

    • Placental abruption: This is an uncommon yet serious complication of pregnancy. Placental abruption occurs when the placenta partially or completely separates from the inner wall of the uterus before delivery. This can decrease or block the baby’s supply of oxygen and nutrients and cause heavy bleeding in the mother. It often happens suddenly, and left untreated can endanger both the mother and baby.
    • Premature birth: A premature birth is a birth that takes place more than three weeks before the baby’s estimated due date. In other words, a premature birth is one that occurs before the start of the 37th week of pregnancy.
    • Growth Problems: Babies born to mothers with an addiction to painkillers during pregnancy have been noted as not growing to their full potential beginning in utero. 
    • Stillbirth: Stillbirth is the death of a baby in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Breastfeeding & Opioid Use

After giving birth, one of the most beautiful acts of bonding in nature is the ability to nurture a child that you created, but it may not be the best choice. It has been said if the baby was born with NAS, breastfeeding may help make the withdrawals less severe, requiring less medicine and a quicker hospital exit.

However, if you must return to opioid use after pregnancy to manage chronic pain, know that some opioids can cause life-threatening problems for the baby through breastfeeding. Make sure that you speak with a medical professional for instructions on whether or not you should continue breastfeeding. Consider an alternative if using any of these medications:

  • Codeine
  • Hydrocodone
  • Meperidine
  • Oxycodone
  • Tramadol

These can cause adverse side effects in the baby, and it is recommended that pain relievers such as Advil or Tylenol be used as an alternative during breastfeeding.

Opioid Statistics

  • Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them
  • Between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder
  • About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids
  • The Midwestern region saw opioid overdoses increase 70 percent from July 2016 through September 2017
  • Opioid overdoses in large cities increased by 54 percent in 16 states

Recovery From Addiction to Prescription Painkillers

The addiction specialists at Arete Recovery understand opioid addiction recovery and how frightening withdrawal can be. We view detox as a critical part of recovery from substance abuse and addiction, so we want to equip you with the resources you need to quit using opioids while protecting the life you carry.

Call us today at 855-781-9939 or contact us online to begin your life to sobriety. Our addiction professionals will provide you with a free assessment and consultation. We’ll also connect you to the treatment that you need to get started on the road to recovery today.

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